Barely ten years later, and it’s already impossible to recall with any precision the depths of uncertainty that was life post-Hurricane Katrina. Much of the collectively kept digital diary of that catastrophe has already been forgotten – in some cases paved over in page redesigns or simply lost to “web erosion,” relegated forever to 404: Page Not Found status. And yet, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the evacuated Gulf Coast diaspora reconnected primarily online -- via blog posts, community newsletters and frequently forwarded emails. Contrary to what high school guidance counselors everywhere will tell you, the Internet, it turns out, is not forever.
AUGUST 29, 2005
Destruction and destruction and Monroe, La. Anxiety. Most of my people are accounted for, except for two—one who was staying in the Lower 9th and one Uptown.
Apparently Lakeview is extensively flooded. I fear I may have nothing left to go home to. I am sick with worry over people and, I hate to admit it, things. However, I did bring my $400 worth of schoolbooks with me. And one pair of flip-flops. My phone is out, guys. I hope everyone is safe. This is like a nightmare that I can’t shake.
-- KELLY LANDRIEU, MINERVAE
AUGUST 30, 2005
I can’t tell you what it’s like to be in New Orleans right now. I can only tell you what it’s like to not be there. Obviously, I want to know that my house is okay. I’m not too worried about the things in it—we managed to secure most stuff before we left—I just want to know that it’s still standing. It’s a stupid psychological thing, but to me, if the house is still standing, there’s a possibility that things will return to normal at some point down the line.
I want to stop thinking about the minutiae of my daily life. I want to stop thinking about work, and the multiple jobs I had running at the print shop in Metairie—a print shop that is most likely underwater now—and how that’s going to affect my marketing plans for the year. I want to stop thinking about our theatre company and how our schedule is going to be thrown off, and how we’re going to have to postpone the project that we’ve been giggling about for years. I want to stop thinking about other things, other plans, other projects that will have to be cancelled, put off, or drastically re-envisioned. I want to stop thinking about paychecks and bills and all the practical things that I usually think about—things that, thanks to direct deposit and online bill payments and other modern miracles, would normally manage themselves.
I want to stop watching the news. It’s deadening, and the broadcasters are prone to get things wrong. Yesterday, reporters kept talking about a levee break in the Upper 9th Ward (my neighborhood), when, in fact, the break was in the Lower 9th Ward, which is further away and is separated from us by another system of levees. I guess the confusion is to be expected when you’ve got non-New Orleanians trying to make sense of our byzantine neighborhood naming systems—but that doesn’t make it any less unsettling.
Not least of all, I want to express my gratitude to our hosts. The mayor is saying that we won’t be able to get back to town for another week, and that utilities won’t be up and running for several more. I love spending time with Drew and Don, but I feel very, uncomfortable imposing on them for that long. Hell, I wouldn’t feel right camping with my own family for that long. But Drew and Don have been nothing but accommodating.
And to CNN: would it kill you to do a flyby of the Faubourg Marigny? I mean, really, just one good pass up Royal Street….
SEPTEMBER 04, 2005
As soon as it became clear that Hurricane Katrina was going to hit New Orleans, and for many days after it did hit, I was asked by various people to write about or comment on the event and, for lack of a better word, its “meaning.”
I was asked because we lived in the city for about three and a half years, and I published a small book about that time. The specific nature of the request varied. Somebody wanted me to talk about “the arts and culture of New Orleans.” Somebody else wanted me to write something on the “psyche” of the place, in a way that would “draw a picture of the world that lives, fatalistically but also optimistically, with the proximity of natural disaster.” Mostly they wanted an explanation of what it is that makes New Orleans different. Again: they wanted meaning.
When Katrina’s eye passed just east of the city Monday morning, I was on an airplane from Newark to Las Vegas. I was headed to a trade show for the apparel and fashion industry. I was worried and distracted, but when I landed, the early word on the hurricane was that, for New Orleans at least, things looked better than expected.
And I spent the next several hours hustling around the city’s enormous convention center, a strange bubble where the only news that circulated was about the authenticity of this hipster streetwear line or gossip about the hottest “urban” brands. Meanwhile, the news in the real world was changing. In a hotel room, I watched events unfold on television. People were stranded. There was looting.
By Tuesday morning a levee had failed, water was now rising through the city, and it was clear to me, at this point, that a nightmare was unfolding. The looting was getting worse, the number of people who were stranded was clearly larger than originally thought. It was at about this time that the requests for an explanation of New Orleans, its specialness, and its meaning, began to arrive in greater numbers.
It looked to me that what was happening in the city was that there were quite likely hundreds or maybe thousands of people who were going to die in their attics in poor, mostly black neighborhoods; the rule of law was collapsing; a majority of the city was now said to be flooded; there was no word on when power might be restored; even the hundreds of thousands who did get out of the city were now in an open-ended homeless and jobless limbo. And I did not feel like explaining New Orleans. I felt like crying.
Many times it has been pointed out that New Orleans is different from most places partly because it is surrounded by water, and has lived for hundreds of years with the possibility of this kind of disaster. Perhaps, it is often speculated, there is a connection between this and the city’s almost un-American joie de vivre; at the very least, there is something of the fatalistic in the juxtaposition of the goodtime life and the constant threat of destruction.
That may all be correct. It may also be correct that the perfect metaphor for this carnivalesque place is the mask: the constructed façade that hides another identity, quite possibly a much less attractive one. So many people think of New Orleans as a picturesque vacation town, a zone in which to act wild and crazy for a time in an atmosphere appropriately soaked in the carefree, the possibly dangerous—and the authentic.
The aftermath of Katrina will, I suspect, have the effect on many people of feeling that they have seen a mask fall away. Certainly anyone who has lived in or really knows New Orleans already knew that behind the beauty of the French Quarter and the Garden District lay a sprawling and sometimes desperate underclass. Generally this is mentioned only in the “arts and culture” context, as a backdrop to, say, the creation of jazz, or more recently, the rise of several major rap stars. But obviously it is just as true in a socioeconomic context: The city has long been full of people living in brutal poverty; the city has long been full of cheap violence.
I was back at home in Jersey City by late Tuesday night, watching with anyone else who cared just how badly things can fall apart, and reading reports of the systematic theft of guns, of a forklift commandeered to rip through the metal gate protecting a drugstore, of shootouts, of breakdowns in basic social behavior. It is likely that as the stories of life in the Superdome and Who’s Right in the city for those days eventually reach us, they will be ugly and grim. It is hard to believe the idea of the city that care forgot disintegrating into chaos and misery. It makes me angry and it breaks my heart.
I have written many words in the past about what it is that I think makes New Orleans special, different, unique. I have written them in tones of love, and I have meant them. At the moment, however, I feel that thinking about what sets New Orleans apart is, while understandable, not the right thing to do. The reason is that if a mask is falling away, then the attempt to localize what we see is also an attempt to be distant from it. That is a comfortable approach to take, but it is also the wrong approach. It is comfortable to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in New Orleans, rather than to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in the United States. And it is comfortable to think that there must be something different about the people of New Orleans because they were so willing to live right on the edge of mortality; they must have some strange penchant for denial.
We all live on the edge of mortality. A penchant for denial is the most unstrange thing in the world. Masks are a routine function of daily life—and they were of course precisely the thing being sold at that fashion and apparel convention that I was so anxious to escape. A penchant for denial is what allows most of us to gossip about fashion or search for meaning or otherwise go about our business in one city, while the social contract dissolves and trapped people die of thirst in another. Disasters, large and small, natural or otherwise, are always proximate. Learning to live with that is not what sets the people of New Orleans apart, it is what binds them to us.
This—more than any of the many things about the city that are special, unique, irreplaceable—is the reason you should care about New Orleans, and its people, and their future.
-- ROB WALKER, LETTERS FROM NEW ORLEANS
SEPTEMBER 4, 2005
It’s official. Everything I own, besides my briefcase and my backpack with my least favorite clothes, is gone. Family in town tried to get to my house. Impossible. Every book. Every notebook, journal, shoe, piece of antique furniture ... soaking in sewerage right now. I don’t even know how I am going to look for work in Memphis. I seriously look like a refugee. If you saw the things I “evacuated” with, you would laugh. (I was planning on riding out the storm at my parents and then heading back to my place. I was one of the cocky it’s-going-to-turn people.) I’m alive. That counts for something. But I really do not feel like being an adult about it right now.
-- KELLY LANDRIEU, MINERVAE
SEPTEMBER 10, 2005
This terrible situation has its bright side in that it has brought out the good in so many people. I realize that sounds silly and trite but the sympathy and kindness of strangers that I have personally experienced has been incredible, to say nothing of the aid my friends have offered. I don’t want to be pitied, but it makes life a little easier to be treated like a welcome guest— and at least here in Destin, that has been the case. Yesterday I had a root canal, again. I had one earlier in the summer, which went well; this one had been started by my dentist at home about a week before the storm, and I was scheduled to have it completed this week. For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen, and I’ve been on a constant flow of over-the-counter pain meds since I got to Florida, so I decided that enough was enough and made an appointment with the only endodontist in town.
I got there, filled out the paperwork, and explained the situation first to an assistant, then to the dentist. Then the chair went back, they took X-rays, and got to work. It was worse than I had expected—when the dentist keeps saying “wow” and “oh my” and “this is really bad,” it’s not a good sign. Apparently it had become pretty infected since the process had been started in New Orleans—which explains the pain I had been in. She kept going, explaining that because of the infection, this would be painful—anesthetic or not. And it was. But I soldiered through it—it helps if you just try to think of the pain as “warmth.” By the end, the dental assistant whispered to me that she had never seen anyone take that much pain that well... but hey, she probably says that to everybody. Anyway. So I go to the front to pay for the procedure, and the dentist tells me that since my first dentist in New Orleans had probably filed the insurance claim on that tooth, and because of the situation with the storm, she knew I had better things to spend my money on—there wouldn’t be a charge for this.
Maybe it was the pain, maybe it was being in the position of accepting rather than giving charity—more likely it was just the sheer generosity—I broke down crying right there, told them how much I appreciated it through my tears, hugged the dentist, thanked her again…all the dental assistants in the office were crying by the time I left.
-- ALLEN BOUDREAUX, UNAPOLOGETIC
SEPTEMBER 11, 2005
Where do I begin?
Two weeks ago the only thing on my mind was my tailgate party for the Saints first game. Today I am at square one in life, having lost every possession I own in Hurricane Katrina. It’s quite a shocking turn of events when you wake up one day and realize that 31 years of life, memories, and work are swept away in an instant. My entire family and most of my friends lost everything. I never thought we would all be starting over together at the same time. Who do you lean on? Everyone is in the same situation. If I had to describe what I feel at this moment it would have to be shock, depression, and a loss of will. I just wish I knew where my grandmother was right now.
The pain I feel inside is compounded by the realization that the government and the rest of the world looks at the people from my hometown as second-class citizens not worthy of dignity. The treatment we have received in other cities since this happened has been helpful but also degrading. Don’t let the images on TV fool you. On April 28th, I had a job, a house, a dog that I loved dearly, and a wonderful circle of friends and family support. I didn’t depend on a handout and I really don’t want any now, but since my life has been washed away in toxic floodwater I have no choice. Where do I go from here? Only time will tell.
I don’t know if I can ever feel truly secure in my own city again. I don’t know if the circumstances of how I left will ever allow me to feel like I truly belong anywhere else either. I guess I am in emotional limbo when it comes to my place in this country. I would be lying if I said that New Orleans was the cleanest, most honest, and most rewarding place to live. Some of the things that go on there can take a lot out of you mentally. I won’t mention the draining humidity and heat and the unwritten racism in the area that almost assures the entire area won’t prosper. Even with all that, I have an almost obsessive love for the place that won’t die until I do. Call me foolish, but I have always waited for the day when things would turn around. I guess that day is near because it can’t get much worse than it is now.
I don’t know what the future holds for me or the Big Easy. I do know that there are some friends and people that I may never see or hear from again because of this storm. Some are deceased and others will be too shaken emotionally to ever come back. The hardcore people like myself will be back one day. I just don’t know how you get over something like this. I want one night of sleep without dreaming of something back home and one day where I don’t start crying out of the blue.
I don’t know if that will ever happen again.
I hope I find my grandma.
-- CLIFTON HARRIS, CLIFF’S CRIB
SEPTEMBER 25, 2005
Goggles? Check. Respirator? Check. Extra gas? Crap. No extra gas. Once again, gasoline is in short supply, and those precious red, plastic cans are sold out. Oh, yeah. And I have to figure out the best way to drive around 2 million de-evacuating (devacuating?) Houston-ites.
Rita has blown over, and the trip is back on. I’m heading east tomorrow (I hope) to Nicholson, Mississippi, an hour outside of New Orleans where I’ll meet up with John and Zack, and we’ll form a sort of neo-apocalyptic Three Musketeers of reconstruction, wielding our hammers with fury and might. Or something like that.
At various moments, this thing has felt like it must be a different century. Mass population migrations? Packing provisions? Leaving the womenfolk and children behind?* This stuff doesn’t happen anymore, right? When Katrina blew through, it rolled back the clock and created a new frontier in the middle of the Gulf South with New Orleans at its epicenter, a no-man’s-land, surrounded by concentric rings of progressively increasing normalcy. In the passing weeks, the normalcy has gradually flowed back in (although Rita briefly put that on hold). Now some things are really back up and running. Others are still in the stone age.
I’m looking forward to going back, and taking the first little step towards rebuilding our New Orleans lives, even though I know it won’t be easy seeing my home like that.
And I have no idea when my next post will be. Check back in. If I don’t manage to update in the interim, I’ll definitely have plenty to say when I get back in a few days.
* This is not a comment on my gender politics. It’s just how things have worked out.
-- DAVID OLIVIER, SLIMBOLALA
SEPTEMBER 30, 2005
After watching various network news stations I’ve realized that (my dog) Cheddar could have been either Adopted, Shot, or Stolen and Sold. Me & my sister are going crazy right now trying to find our dog.
We even saw a few dogs that looked like him on a show on Animal Planet that was recorded during Katrina Animal Rescue. But after calling them, they claimed that all these animals were surrendered by their owners.
That’s a lie. We were forced to leave the animals. I hope we get our dog.
I feel like goin’ back to N.O y’all…
-- JOSHUA COUSIN, NOTE FROM THE BOOK
OCTOBER 11, 2005
In the New New Orleans, most people are looking for a new job, a new place to live, or both. Some have found it...our friend Bob, teacher/principal for 30 years at the school he founded, is working construction and cleaning out refrigerators. Jeanine, also a teacher, is working the FEMA phone lines. Jenn, a newly laid-off hospital colleague, serves us pizza at one of the few open restaurants. “It’s weird,” she says, “because I worked in a pizzeria in college and hated it, which is what inspired me to get my PhD....I guess I’ve come full circle.” She wants to get another job in her field, but it probably won’t be around here, and she can’t bear to leave New Orleans yet. Dory, a former UNO professor, is hoping to parlay her volunteer job with the Red Cross into a paying one.
We run into Cassandra and Shelley in the Quarter...they are all smiles. Their house was ruined, but they scored a good gig cleaning rooms at a downtown hotel in exchange for room and board. Plus, Cassandra is a massage therapist, and the guests pay her cash, mostly Army Corps of Engineers guys.
“Cute?” I ask.
“Fifty-something suburban dads,” she sighs. “But they’re really nice people.”
“You should get in with the Guard,” I say. (She’s single, after all.)
“WAY too young,” she laughs. “I’m looking for the 30-year-old crowd.”
“Insurance adjusters?” I offer. “Or roofers...”
Speaking of roofers, FEMA will send some guys over to put a blue plastic tarp over your damaged roof so the rain won’t come in. A mere $1900 for the job—billed to your insurance company, or, if you don’t have it, then to the federal government. Your tax dollars at work, folks. It takes a half an hour, and they use a staple gun.
Mayor Nagin (“Ray-Ray” when we’re feeling the love) proposes a large casino district, “Las Vegas of the South.” Charity Hospital is smack in the middle of it, so the administration stands to make beaucoup dollars on selling the land once they tear down the building. We can only hope they build a Charity Hospital-themed casino on the site— martinis intravenously!
An unlimited buffet whizzes by on a gurney!—so that the former employees can get their jobs back. I’ll be one of the doctors dealing blackjack, and a real nurse in a fake nurse uniform will get your drinks. Not a bad place to choke or have a heart attack—at least you’ll bein capable hands.
Still, the weather turns cooler, and our spirits are definitely up.
They extended our curfew and we can stay out to midnight....Saturday we see signs all over town with magic marker: 2nite Hot 8 Brass Band @ Le Bon Temps. And we go, and it is magical. Like the first time you hear live music in New Orleans. The crowd is frenzied, happy reunions with old friends...(by the way, a strange effect of the hurricane is that I have become a “double-hugger.” You know, a slow, close hug, with an extra squeeze at the end. Usually the realm of drunk guys and/or hippies and/or elderly aunts, the double hug is now officially my m.o.).
The band sounds great and leads the crowd in chants like “Katrina, you gotta do better than that,” and “New Orleans, bring it back, bring it back.” I see Ravi at the end of the bar, but it’s too packed to get across, so we mouth words and do sign language.
“You okay?” he says.
I give the thumbs-up sign.
“House?” he makes a roof with his hands.
I wrinkle my nose and shake my head side to side.
He nods sadly, “Us, too.”
“How’s the baby?” I say while cradling the air.
“She’s great, so great,” he grins.
We never did make it across the bar—the National Guard rides up at midnight and tells us all to go home. They look tired, but are quite gentle about it all.
But next time I see Ravi, I’m definitely gonna get close enough that I can give him a double hug.
-- KIERSTA KURTZ-BURKE
APRIL 28, 2006
These were American citizens. Two thousand of them died … And you’re bored with it, and us.
New Orleans has been a major city for almost three hundred years. It’s the birthplace of American culture, period. Despite the crime, despite the poverty, despite everything, New Orleans bred a fierce bond with its people. They loved New Orleans like a lover, a physical being so deeply tied to their souls that they could never give her up, even if she was bad for them.
The citizens of New Orleans had families, jobs (they really did), dreams, tragedies, hard times. They were alive, more alive than any of the zombies you see walking the streets of Atlanta or the ghosts hiding in the corners of Detroit. Despite the crime, despite the poverty. They were living in the truest sense of the word.
And then the hurricane came and took it all away. Took away the homes, the lives, the dignity, the dreams, everything. You’d really have to see it to understand: it’s not just water damage. It’s not a ruined house here and there. It’s bad. People died, people fled, the proudest and most vibrant and most alive city in America was hammered, knocked to its knees and left for dead.
But you’re bored.
People are coming back. The city is slowly being rebuilt by people who can’t live anywhere else or do anything else, who won’t abandon their lover when she’s hurt and sick, maybe dying. No one knows if it will work, if New Orleans will live again. Or if Cameron Parish or Vermilion Parish, blown to smithereens by Hurricane Rita, will live again. But we haven’t given up.
You’ve given up on us.
You’ve given up on us because we’re poor, black, Southern. We’re clowns, partying all day, drinking all night, and running a banana republic government on graft and free drink tickets. Deep in your hard little hearts, you think we deserve this. Had it coming, carrying on like that. It’s as if we had been daring God to put a stop to the nonsense, and he finally did. Besides, black people, poor people—do we really want to build new nests for them? Shouldn’t we accept their dispersal as a gift, a way of diluting the concentrated oil slick of beastly black faces and exasperatingly poor white ones? Mostly Democrats, too, if I recall. Maybe if they’re far apart they won’t breed. If they’re scattered, they can’t organize, either, so its win-win, right?
See, it’s all worked out, so will you whiners just drop it?
We’re not going to go away. We are going to keep staggering along, demanding attention, pulling on your sleeve like some scabby beggar who knows you from another life. We’re going to come to all your functions and introduce ourselves, the legless one-eyed veteran, the black sheep of the family who mortifies the guests, even as they can’t stop gazing into that sightless, empty socket, at the red, raw stumps where legs used to be.
We are not going away. And if we go down, we’re going to take you down with us.
-- GREG PETERS, SUSPECT DEVICE
A Katrina Memoir In Numbers
3: Katrina’s rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale while AC and I watched a zombie movie, August 27
5: Katrina’s rating when AC woke me up on August 28
1: how many hours it took us to get on the road
19: the number of hours it took AC and I to reach Atlanta.
7: the number of hours it usually takes to get to Atlanta
11: the number of hours after we left New Orleans that Katrina made landfall
89.3: the longitudinal position of Katrina’s landfall on the map
89.5: New Orleans’ longitudinal position
3: Katrina’s rating when she impacted New Orleans
3: the category of hurricane the levee system was supposedly built to withstand
3: the number of levee breaches that allowed water from Lake Pontchartrain to inundate the city
Chapter 2—The Damage
3: the number of houses in St. Bernard parish undamaged by floodwaters
14: the estimated maximum depth, in feet, of the floodwaters after the levee breaches
80: the percentage of the city flooded by the levee breaches
200,000 + : the number of houses in Orleans Parish that got a foot of water or more
15: the number of people I know who lost everything they owned in the flood
1: the number of headlines the Times-Picayune ran August 28 about Katrina breaching the levees
1: the number of times Max Mayfield, head of the national weather center, warned Mayor Nagin about possible levee breaches on August 27
6 +: The number of times I heard Mayor Nagin’s warning about possible levee breaches on the radio while evacuating
1: the number of times President Bush appears on video being warned about possible levee breaches
1: the number of times the President said on television that “no one could have anticipated the breach of the levees”
2: the number of days before landfall that Louisiana was declared a federal disaster area
1: the number of FEMA officials in New Orleans on August 29
4: how many days after landfall federal assistance arrived in the city
7-10: how many days after landfall the Superdome and the Convention Center were considered evacuated
1500 + : the number of deaths attributed to Katrina in Louisiana
1,500,000: the approximate number of people successfully evacuated from southeastern Louisiana ahead of Hurricane Katrina
44: the number of days AC and I spent in evacuation/exile after the storm
0: the number of other residents on our block when AC and I returned from the storm
5: the number of homes on my block that needed roof repair
4.5: the number of hours AC and I spent salvaging our fridge
6: how many plants from the porch survived sitting in the living room for a month and a half
3: the number of times FEMA called me at my high-and-dry apartment to offer me a trailer
0: the number of my friends who applied for a trailer and got one.
2: the number of rejection letters AC and I got from publishers the first day the mail started coming again
2: the number of months after we cleaned it out that AC and I had to drag our fridge to the curb because it died anyway
Chapter 7—Back to Work
3: the number of weeks after I got back that my former employer contacted me to offer me my old job
0: the amount of seconds it took me to tell him I had a much better job already
125: the approximate number of vodka-Red Bulls I make on any given weekend
63: the approximate average IQ of the people for whom I make the aforementioned vodka-Red Bulls
8: the number of out-of-state contractors I’ve had to reprimand at the bar for calling the mayor a “nigger”
100: percentage of the tips I take from those people anyway
1: the number of times AC offered the mayor and his wife a chocolate dessert after the mayor’s infamous Chocolate City comment
0: the number of desserts the mayor and his wife ordered
20: the percentage the mayor typically tips after dinner
Chapter 8—Toward Optimism
1: the number of puppies we adopted after the storm because we felt we didn’t have enough to deal with already
65: the current weight, in pounds, of the aforementioned puppy
110: total pounds of dog now sharing our apartment
6: the number of months, to the day, between Evacuation Day and Fat Tuesday 06
6: the number of months, to the day, between when AC and I evacuated New Orleans and when we got engaged
4: the number of major holidays (Xmas, New Year’s, her B-day, Valentine’s) I sweated through without proposing because I knew she was looking for it
20 – 30: the number of seconds she spent staring at me like I’d lost my mind after I popped the question
400: the number of years it felt like between when I asked and she said yes
100: the number of Mardi Gras-colored “save the date” refrigerator magnets we received in the mail the other day
75-100: the approximate number of guests we expect to host at our spring wedding in New Orleans
300: the approximate number of years New Orleans has continued to survive after fires, epidemics, wars and hurricanes…and we’re still here
-- BILL LOEHFELM, NOLAFUGEES
Excerpted from the anthology “Please Forward,” edited by Cynthia Joyce. Reprinted by permission of University of New Orleans Press, New Orleans, La. All rights reserved.
Watch this colorful video on street performers in the French Quarter:
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